Why the Mayday button is another genius move by Bezos and Amazon

Amazon recently launched the Mayday feature with a television ad campaign showing a one button press for help from a live person who can control and guide you through the use of your Kindle Fire HDX. If you haven’t seen the ads, here are a few of them:

At first my techie self said “why would anyone want that?!?” Then I realized Bezos’s genius.

Mayday isn’t for you.

If you’re reading this, you probably work in startups or technology. Since we are already well served by the iPad and various full-Android tablets, Bezos is targeting the technology laggards of the tablet adoption curve. These are people that want a proven product and only buy once the market is commoditized and discounted. They don’t care about the millions of apps that Apple has as they will only use it for a handful of key applications. They also don’t see the need to pay the Apple premium price either, so a sub-$300 Kindle Fire fits well.

Instead, these users are more like some of my older relatives who use their tablets for email, Facebook, browsing the web and watching videos, often as a second screen. These users sometimes struggle learning new technology and can be sensitive to asking for help as they are worried about feeling dumb.

Mayday is the perfect name.

Do you know what “Mayday” means? If you’re under 25 I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyone in the Baby Boomer or older generation will distinctly recognize it and understand its meaning as a universal call for help. It’s also way catchier than just another “Help” button and probably even trademark-able. Given the target of helping those less tech savvy who have likely not adopted a technology yet, it should immediately click with them.

Amazon isn’t in the tablet business.

I wondered: how could Amazon afford to do this on such a commoditized device where their margins must be slim? Then I remember this is Amazon. They’re not in the tablet business; they’re in the e-commerce business.

We know that e-reader Kindle owners dramatically increase their purchasing with Amazon (50-100%). I bet by now they know the LTV of Fire owners and realized they could afford the support because of all the ancillary spending they would get from those owners and opportunities to redirect users to Amazon solutions when they ask questions. Add to this the data they get on Fire owners knowing all of their activity and the optional ads special offers people can accept, and there’s a lot of value in getting a new Fire owner.

Amazon had to shake things up.

Amazon’s tablet market share is reportedly down significantly (21% in July 2012 vs 10% in July 2013). They needed to use a Blue Ocean Strategy to differentiate and find a unique part of the market they could win. Combining the Mayday button (to attract the hard to attract laggards) with some very obvious use cases (the family accounts with ability to limit access and a child’s time spent on the device) very specifically tries to carve out a strong niche for Amazon. If it works, the difference in cost structure for Amazon, the e-commerce company, versus other tablet makers will make it hard for others to duplicate the Mayday button.

Bezos continues to show he is one of the best strategist CEOs on the planet. Mayday is just one more move to capture value from an under served group and move them into the world of Amazon purchases.

What the Kickstarter Hangover will do to the 3D Printing Industry

Kickstarter has been transformative for many companies, and for the last year or so, the 3D Printing industry has in particular been benefiting greatly from it with over 80 projects and a healthy 50% fund rate (even higher in the last 6 months). Unfortunately, like having too much of a good thing to drink one night, we’re headed for a painful hangover in the 3D Printing industry thanks to Kickstarter.

We’ve seen the data before. Only 25% of KickStarter projects deliver on time, and for wildly successful funding projects it’s even lower at about 16%. This means a lot of waiting and a lot of disappointment for those that may never receive the project at all. There’s no reason to believe 3D printing would be immune to the issues other projects have faced.

So what are the consequences of these delays?

Impatience:  Many users are going to get their printers 6 months to a year after they ordered it. This slows the adoption rate of the industry as people tie up funds they’d invest in a 3D printer they could use immediately. It’s unlikely people are going to buy another printer while they’re eagerly hoping for their Kickstarter one to arrive. With no printer, users won’t be able to start experimenting with the technology.

Obsolescence: While users wait to receive their printers, the technology is evolving and improving rapidly. Will someone who bought a RepRap-style, assemble-yourself printer be happy with it when they see others buying better printers as theirs (finally) arrives? When the other printers have more advanced features like multi-extrusion, out-of-the-box functionality or has a significantly larger build size, how will users feel?

Disappointment: There is something truly magical about watching an object being built right in front of your eyes. Many of the videos on Kickstarter do a great job of highlighting this and the great story behind whomever is making the product. Unfortunately, when you actually get your printer, getting the magic to work for yourself isn’t always easy. These videos don’t show the 6 steps it may take to actually get your design to print or the steep learning curve for design software. They also don’t account for what many of these first-time hardware startup founders are going to face with manufacturing a quality, reliable product. And this ignores greater challenges like the unfortunate IRS issues Printrbot faced, which are bound to strike some campaigns.

The Hangover

Most of the major 3D printing projects funded over the last year are still within their delivery time period, so we’re likely to start seeing some of the delays and pains soon. Like the slow growth in intensity of a hangover’s headache, as the months proceed, people will get anxious for their Buccaneers, Rigidbot (which was due starting in September and likely coming this fall) and Peachy Printer.

Like the blaming of Tequila for your worst hangover, I expect these issues will lead to buyer’s remorse and a black mark for the greater consumer 3D Printing industry; the current market offerings may have solved many of the issues that the Kickstarter projects had, but the wounds from problems with a campaign a user funded will deter them from buying another printer for awhile (as will the financial ties). This is exactly the kind of events that can contribute to the predicted bottoming out of the hype cycle Gartner talks about.

The Hangover Cure

Like a large bottle of water, 2 Advil and some greasy food, I expect there will be a few tactics that will help the market overcome these issues:

1) Feature bonuses

In its early days, Microsoft was notoriously late on projects. They would placate angry partners by promising (and delivering on) new, additional features in exchange for a pushed delivery date. If Kickstarter projects are late, those companies may try a similar tactic to placate their users. This opens up 3rd parties to supply those solutions like I hear the guys at DGlass3D are talking about being an OEM supplier for 3D printing companies that found them on KickStarter.

2) More help with manufacturing

Finding manufacturers is a scary, risky proposition.  On top of the challenges of choosing the right one, a company’s initial design isn’t always easy to manufacture, which requires redesigns and negotiations. Fortunately, there are a growing number of programs to help first time hardware founders like the Highway 1 program in San Francisco. There is also an ever expanding group of people to learn from that have successfully set up their first manufacturing as more hardware startups launch and grow.

3) Shift in models

The early days of the PC industry saw computers sold by mail order pre-orders in Popular Science Magazine and other publications, which isn’t that different from the crowdfunding on Kickstarter today. After a few years of pre-orders, specialty stores started opening where you could see computers, there was real inventory and friendly help. Those stores can provide a much better experience than a pre-order, but they require a greater sales volume, which we’re just starting to get to a market state to support. Such stores are just starting to open like HoneyBee3D in Oakland and MatterHackers in Lake Forest, California.

4) Deliberate marketing to differentiate from Kickstarter printers

If Kickstarter printers are viewed with increased skepticism, then experienced, growing 3D Printing companies will want to differentiate from them. These companies can focus their marketing on being a team of experienced engineers and manufacturers with the latest technology and no wait time for delivery.

5) More evidence of deliverability on Kickstarter

Kickstarter is still an unparalleled way to get press, partnership opportunities and most importantly, paying customers for 3D printing companies. Showing more progress and possibly even manufacturing already fully planned could go a long way to being the “responsible drinking” solution to the Kickstarter hangover.

In general, I expect that a shift away from Kickstarter will occur as there is an industry shake out and consolidation; there are over 300 3D printing companies now and so there’s no way they will all survive in the coming years. As they consolidate, user bases will also, lending itself to sales and marketing being done by each company without the need of Kickstarter (or their 5% cut).

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Consequences of the New Wave of Consumer 3D Printing

On Friday, the Zeepro Zim 3D Printer hit Kickstarter. It has dual extruders, a consumer-friendly print interface, wifi capabilities and the aesthetic of a true consumer product, all for under $1,000.  While not the first printer to have some or all of those capabilities (see also the Buccaneer and while a different technology, Formlabs nails the precision and aesthetics) it marks the growing trend of moving beyond raw, exposed RepRap style printers so beloved by the hacker/hobbyist. While the past few years have been dominated by RepRap and the open source community efforts, I believe we’re in the midst of a transition to the next phase of the market.

The Capitalism Transition

What started for many as simply a desire to make printers for people like them is now becoming a very competitive business. Those that want to continue on those efforts and compete with the 300+ other consumer 3D Printing companies are challenged with keeping pace with current product developments or be lost in the dust.

With all the hype, it’s easy to forget how early it still is. Even the most optimistic estimates only show 200,000 consumer printers owned as of the end of 2012, which isn’t much if you spread that across 300 companies and know the leader has 20-30,000 of those. As a consequence, some companies will starve as they fight to stay relevant and get a piece of the growing revenue pie.

In this new era, a number of changes are occurring:

1) A different kind of founding team

As the market matures, it is attracting more experienced entrants. Zeepro was founded by successful serial European entrepreneurs. They have significant manufacturing and business building experience having previously taken companies to IPO. I’ve spoken to another stealth startup with significant, relevant manufacturing experience with similar designs of conquering the market and starting out with many of the most common problems solved and requested features included in version 1.

This stands in stark contrast to many of the founders to date who are either students/recent graduates or small teams of hobbyists. Many of the post-Kickstarter manufacturing challenges faced by some of the early entrants are unlikely to affect these new teams.

2) A race to feature parity

The roadmap for most companies has been clear for awhile: add a second extruder, a heated bed, eliminate manual calibration, network the printer, expand your print size and improve reliability and stability. With more entrants like the Buccaneer and Zim as well as Makerbot charging ahead, the stakes are raised. To stay relevant, you have to be able to meet those same feature demands faster.  As competition heats further, I expect more companies to push the innovation envelope so they can make feature comparison charts that make them stand out.

zeepro feature chart

3) The slow decline of open source

If it were not for the RepRap movement, we would not have the printers of today. Every company has borrowed from open source and in many cases contributed back. However, as competition has heated up, the amount opened back to the community appears to be decreasing and talks of patents and keeping technology closed has increased. As companies try to stay one step ahead and create breakthroughs based on their own efforts, I expect the lure of a competitive advantage leading to more sales to supersede their desires to contribute to open source.

This will mark the steady decline in relevance of the open source movement for 3D printing as companies with employees working intense hours will surpass what hobbyists and researchers can contribute.

4) A new focus on user experience

As we move from the innovators to the early adopter market, the needs of the user are changing. For every user that wants to build their own printer from scratch, there are many more who lack the skills or interest to do so. New printers that “just work” will become the standard and companies that can both minimize support issues with a quality product and provide great service when there are issues will stand out.

Some companies will not survive this. Having had a Solidoodle 3 for a month now, I have easily spent more time fixing problems and emailing back and forth with support than I have printing. Like other printers currently on the market, when it works, it’s great, but it is not stable enough to recommend to others, especially if they’re less technical.

5) The quest for the killer app will intensify

With more reliable printers with greater functionality hitting the market, new uses will emerge.  As more people own the printers, experimentation on how and what you can print will grow. As this happens, we’re likely to finally see the emergence of the “killer app.”

In the PC market, early consumer computers were considered toys and a hobby until the invention of the word processor and spreadsheet changed everything. When PC features finally allowed for a quality version of each, consumers changed their tune from, “Why would I want a computer?” to “I’m buying a computer specifically for that application.” Today, we’re still in the “Why would I want a 3D printer?” phase as scanning your favorite gnome figurine is far from a killer app. That will change in the next few years.

——–

The 3D Printing market is in a rapid state of change. This new phase of the market is one of the first shifts of many to come. Companies that adapt will not only survive, but thrive, while others are soon headed for footnotes in history like IMSAI and Kentucky Fried Computer in the early days of the PC market.

You can see this transition for yourself and check out companies like Zeepro at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in San Jose tomorrow and Wednesday. You can save 15% by entering code “JE15”.

3d conf

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Consumer 3D Printing has a Twitter Problem

Back in 2009, Twitter was still the new kid on the block dealing with Fail Whales and a real question of what they were going to become. During that time people who didn’t use Twitter would often say, “Why would I join Twitter? I don’t care what you had for breakfast.” This proved to be a big hurdle for Twitter as they tried to slowly learn what hooked people and how to describe the value they provided so they could successfully go mainstream.

Today, 3D printing is in a very similar position. There’s tons of press talking about the potential and much activity in the ecosystem. However, just like with Twitter a few years ago, people look at consumer 3D printers today and say things like “I don’t get it. Why would I want to print a bunch of plastic junk?” 

How 3D printing will cross the chasm

What we’re really talking about is a disconnect between a product’s capabilities, its core value, and the average consumer. Twitter was able to cross the chasm thanks to their own learnings of how users best got value from them as well as fortuitous events like the Arab Spring and celebrity events like the passing of Michael Jackson showing a use case everyone could understand.

In the case of consumer 3D printing, they need a few things to happen:

1) Cheap, consumer friendly devices

Consumer electronics seem to currently do best when they’re priced at less than $1,000 (see the Kindle Fire, iPad, most laptops, etc). Currently, the vast majority of 3D printers at that price point require your own assembly and have a steep learning curve. Makerbot, Cubify and many of the Kickstarter printers like the Buccaneer are hard at work to get that price point down and the out of the box functionality significantly improved. Without this, nothing else below matters, because people won’t be able to figure out how to use them.

2) Separate the fantastic from the realistic

Every day there’s an article about something new about 3D printing in medicine, NASA, weaponry or something else exciting or controversial. Unfortunately, all that press hypes up the potential of 3D printers while setting unrealistic expectations on the current state of consumer printers. Helping separate the two is a challenge for everyone in the market. How do you get people excited about the (albeit limited) abilities of consumer 3D printing?

3) A Killer app

Right now, anyone can print what they can imagine if they have the CAD design skills. They can also explore sites like Thingiverse for designs they’d like to download and print. Unfortunately, even downloading a design isn’t guaranteed to be an easy, smooth experience. Even the emergence of cheap 3D scanners feels unlikely to be the silver bullet since consumers will still have the question of what to scan. All of this also ignores the limitation of single-color plastic as your usual printing option.

In another technology’s chasm crossing moment, the PC went mainstream with the inventions of the word processor and spreadsheet, which were 10x better experiences than the typewriter and manual bookkeeping. Not all of the limitations have to be overcome to create a killer app, but the question remains: What can 3D printing be 10x better than for an average consumer?

If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s that movements like these don’t stop. It’s only a question of who leads the innovations and when the market will take the leap to mainstream.

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